Strength to Start

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I Corinthians 1: 1-9

Introduction

The dawn is breaking, slowly, over the snow blanketed city. You have assembled yourself for the morning, with your coat and hat and mittens. You stand like a medieval knight with his standard, you with your great-mouthed shovel in hand, and dawn is breaking, slowly, over the fourth day of Nevada, the great snowfall. You are ready to start.

In our shared epiphany, this early winter, we have prepared to start. We encouraged you to begin by breathing. We pondered the possibility of a New Birth of Freedom. We noticed the early, first light of love in music, love and music. We announced and received a winter grace. We meditated on starting over. You have had already a homiletically busy year.

Yet there is a relationship between knowing and doing that dies without the strength of choosing. It is one thing to know the true and good and beautiful. It is another thing to do the true and good and beautiful. How do we move from knowing to doing? By choosing. Learning becomes virtue through piety. Learning becomes virtue through piety. Learning becomes virtue through piety…

In some best only known to you, by faith, you are ready to start. You have practiced the breathing of prayer. You have seen the horizon of freedom. You have heard the loving angels sing. You have admired a winter grace. You have seen the need to start over. Somehow. I do not know, fully, all of your new starts, though some are pretty clear, and shared. All share this: it takes strength to start. To change to a new path requires strength to start.

Shakespeare knew the beauty and terror of the dawn:

The grey eyed morn smiles on the frowning night
Chequering the eastern clouds with streaks of light
And flecked darkness like a drunkard reels
Form forth days path and Titan’s fiery wheels
Now ere the sun advance his burning eye
The day to cheer and night’s dank dew to dry

I sometimes long to leave all and teach Shakespeare, perhaps the only English voice needed for guidance, apart from the many voices of Scripture. The great poet and playwright knew, as was said of our Lord in his earthly ministry, knew the heart of man. He knew the complexity of moral judgment. He knew the ambiguity of corporate and governmental life. He knew the strange subterranean interplay of spirituality and sexuality. He knew the elusive mobility of truth, which, to be spoken, requires a lifetime of rapt attention, and years of isolated pain and imprisonment. He knew the repetitions, generation to generation, of impeachment and trial and coverup and revelation. What this country needs is neither a chicken in every pot nor a good 5 cent cigar nor a plain, new, fair, or square deal, but, a rivetingly taught course in Shakespeare!

As you start, at whatever dawn you face, ponder this: Christ gives strength to start. A new year? Strength to start. A new path? Strength to start. A new relationship? Strength to start. A new diagnosis? Strength to start. A new commitment? Strength to start. A new situation? Strength to start. Christ offers strength to start.

To you remains the decision to choose what you know you should do. Here are three encouragements to such a choice.

Strength in Christ

In the first place, we may plainly affirm that we find strength in Christ.

At the start of his long letter to the feisty Corinthians, St Paul places the few choice verses read aloud for us this morning. We listen to them and we hear them as God’s Word. The words of Scripture are “holy” in that they stand over against us, they take the measure of our self-deception, they outlast our passions and defeats and very lives. These verses will live longer than we, and rightly so.

It will be more obvious to the newer among us that every Sunday we hear two contrasting readings. One is from Mark, the gospel, a story, a narrative, an announcement of resurrection set in an account of Jesus’ ministry. The other is 1 Corinthians, a letter, a direct statement about how to live, sent from Paul to his church. I believe we who are more used to hearing these parallel readings have grown insensitive to just how different they are from one another.

Having followed Jesus in his healing ministry for some weeks, we turn now to Paul. We have returned to the beginning of the letter from which we have heard so much this winter.

While these verses are a part of a standard letter opening, used in almost all of Paul’s epistles, they are far from perfunctory greetings or boilerplate thanksgiving. To the contrary, subtly here Paul surveys the whole of the coming letter and summarizes what he is about to proclaim. He starts with the whole and with the end in view.

We too must make our various beginnings, and so we are not displeased to find here an inspired manner of entry. Paul asserts strength to start.

And what a generous start does he make! All of the pieces of the letter’s later puzzles are laid out here in the grand style. Where later there will be acrimony, difficulty, opaque philosophy, deep meaning, ethical admonition—scolding, and other standard religious fare, here there is great strength, a happy word, something good with which to start.

Our sixth grade teacher, a harsh task master as the day wore on, nonetheless began every morning with 30 minutes of simple reading–from Tolkien’s The Hobbit, or from Harriet the Spy, or from Tom Sawyer.
Then she would turn to math or history saying, “well begun is half done”.

Think of the Voyage of the Beagle, five years long, on which and through which, early in his life, Charles Darwin started to develop his lastingly powerful comprehension of our origins. We have a whole series of sermons on Darwin coming this summer.

The letter opens with joy, and with a new vocabulary of love and delight. This is meant to be our daily glossary, too, even as Paul now will teach it to the Corinthians.

Grace
Peace
Thanksgiving
Saints together
Gifts-charismata
Guiltless
Fellowship
In Christ
God is faithful

Oh that we would bathe ourselves at the outset of each day in such a shower of strength!

For you, all of you, have been found in a new situation. You are “in Christ”.

Start the day strong—much will befall to challenge by dusk.
Start life strong in childhood—much comes later to unsettle.
Start with laughter and play in summer—much in autumn proves more difficult.
Start this New Year with strength, and like a skier carried along by Newton’s gravity, you will pass by and over and around the bumps.
Start this week and each week with the hearing of the Holy Word—much that is less than holy will greet you later.

Strength in Time of Need

In the second place, we may plainly affirm that the gifts of Christ are reliable in time of need, are firm in the face of danger. They make us certain when we need to be and inwardly secure when we have to be.

Whether we are babes in Christ or approved in Christ or wise in Christ—we make our starts with strength.

For the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill, but time and chance happen to t
hem all.

How well we remember the final game of the NCAA tournament in 1989, pitting Syracuse against Indiana. You remember the close finish, the wild crowd, the first place ranking at stake. Derek Coleman, then a freshman, somehow, inexplicably missed an easy shot at the end, and the player berating, chair kicking, opponent bedeviling Coach Knight went on victory. “O somewhere in this favored land the sun was shining bright, and somewhere children were singing, and somewhere hearts were light, but there was joy in upstate New York when mighty Derek struck out.” The race is not always to the swift…

On Monday the Rotary Club lunch began, in a deep and sorrowful reverie, broken only half-heartedly by the dejected President’s call to order, the weekly off-key singing of the national anthem, and then, as usual, with the prayer, offered that day by county judge Jack Schultz. “Dear God, we know that we cannot always win. We know that we learn from our losses as well as our victories. We thank you for many blessings that have come our way, even though this inferior Indiana team, lead by a heartless and ruthless tyrant, has stolen our one chance in this generation for glory. Lord, we do not expect always to win…but, but, but… we do demand justice in the future! Amen.” It still rings out as the most heartfelt public prayer I have heard.

No, the race is not always to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, nor bread to the wise, nor riches to the intelligent, nor favor to the men of skill, but time and chance happen to them all.

Life is not fair, not by a country mile.

Not fair to those who suffer untimely loss
Not fair to those stricken with unexpected illness
Not fair to those whose limbs are taken and torn
Not fair to those who should have been chosen
Not fair to those whose flight falls earthward
Not fair to you

Time and chance happen to all.

Jan and I know the Buffalo airport well. For many years, about half our flights began or concluded there. We know the little village become suburb of Clarence Center, and the Clarence Center United Methodist church. We know the rhythms of travel for women and men who go downstate to work and come upstate to live.

I remember living in the Syracuse University neighborhood in 1988, when the Lockerbie crash occurred, and 200 lives were lost.

Our hearts reach out to the lost and the grieving. We do not know what a day may bring, but only that the hour for serving good is always present. One of the reasons, over time, that we struggle to start something new is that we cannot see all the risks in and of the future. Things go wrong, in ways that we do not expect. It can make us gun shy. It can make us risk averse. It can make us think only twice but twenty times twice. So it takes strength to start.

So we long to hear an encouragement to start with strength.

I have a friend who loves to start almost anything, but has no energy to finish. He loves to take things apart, but not to put them back together. He loves to initiate ideas but not to see them through. He loves to begin, but not to complete.

St Paul had something of this spirit. Who can say why?

He loved to start people on the road to faith, to start the preaching of the Gospel, to start churches on the road of their common life. And so, he ignited a church in Thessalonaica, and incited a church in Corinth and initiated a church in Galatia and one Philippi and on he went, to finish preaching the good news through the whole inhabited world before Christ would return.

His was a dawn faith, a morning view, a salutation, a hello…

You can take some of his starting strength with you today.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation…
He who has begun a good work in you will complete it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ…
Have you begun with the Spirit to end with the flesh?…
It is the God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ…
He is the beginning, the first born from the dead that in everything he might be pre eminent…
For the Son of God, Jesus Christ, whom we preached among you, was not Yes and No, but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him…

Martin Luther, whose sermon on these verses is one of his finest and most personal, recounts his many attempts to find peace with God through self-discipline, through religious duty, through acts of contrition, through his own works, until at last he collapsed.

“But this availed me nothing; nor did it free me from a fearful and dreadful conscience…This is God’s Word… this one thing God asks of you, that you honor him by accepting comfort; believe and know that he forgives your transgressions and has no wrath against you.”

You may start again with strength. You have the love of God, the Gospel of Christ, the Grace of the Lord, the baptism of the church, the prayers of the church, the Lord’s prayer, the ten commandments, the sacrament of communion, the word of absolution, and the decision of faith.

Strength in the Hope of the Future

In the third place, we may plainly affirm the strength that comes from beginning with the end in view.

The verb found here translated now as confirmed and then as sustained is really the same verb and it means “strengthened”. The testimony of Christ is strengthened among you….He will strengthen you to the end, blameless in the day…

You recognize here the language of ancient Jewish apocalyptic. Paul expresses his hope in the characteristic mode of his time and his people. He writes of the end and of the day of the Lord. Jesus in Mark 13, Paul in 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and John in John 14 say, in short, that speculation about dates and times is useless. “Of that day no one knows”.

But Paul here reminds us, and this is a source of strength for the beginnings of life, that the Lord Christ is both Alpha and Omega. When at last we set down our various tools and trades, when at last we have lost our eyes and ears, when at last the various dawns have given way to dusk and dusk and dusk—here too we are in Christ and nowhere else, of Christ and no one else. Somehow all the little subplots and sufferings of this present time are going to find their full place and point in a greater story, the day of God, the life-span of Jesus Christ. Today is God’s, and tomorrow is too.

Only such a hope could have sustained Paul, even as it has sustained the church for these many generations. Only such a hope could have strengthened Martin Luther King on August 28 1963 in Washington and all the long bitter way to April 3 1968, his last earthly night: “I just want to do God’s will. And he has allowed me to go to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the promised land…So I’m happy tonight, I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man.” Only such a hope could have sustained Abraham Lincoln, and given him, after slaughter, the strength to start again, ‘with malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right’.

Our young leaders here opened the world to breathing, to freedom, to love, to music, to grace, and to strength on Friday night. In a strange, humble way, our communal fellowship on Friday evening exemplified this strength. Our Valentine’s evening was beautiful, gracious, enjoyable, full, delicious, well-attended, and real. It was an experience of really being alive. Yet our young leaders had never done this. They had to summon the strength to start. Our hospitality team had to ‘worry the evening into existence’ as one said, finding a strength to start something new. Our musicians had to open the
mselves, give themselves to the moment, finding a strength to start something new. Our community in ministry had to come together, in a new way, finding a strength to start something new.

We looked back on all the similar new starts over the years. In Ithaca, a summer fair. In the North Country, a fall tea and sale. In Syracuse, a spaghetti dinner. In Rochester, a golf tournament. All very human, very humble moments. But people do not leave off being human when they come to faith. And people do not leave off being human when they come to university. Being in community requires a decision to be in community, and that requires strength to start, and that requires a choice, to choose to do what we know is true.

You start with confidence about the end. That is the main thing in Paul’s hope. You are strengthened to start in the hope of Jesus Christ.

I do not know, precisely, what you may be about to start. But I call you to decide to do so, to start with strength. The strength is God’s gift to you. The start is up to you.

Conclusion

Strength to start.
Strength to start in Christ
Strength to start in times of trial
Strength to start with hope for the end

Put on the whole clothing of Christ!

As you stand at the dawn of the rest of life…
We will put it in terms familiar…

Put on the whole wardrobe of Christ

Put on the sweater of grace
Put on the boots of peace
Put on the mittens of thanksgiving
Put on the tuke of fellowship
Put on the scarf of faithfulness
Put on the snowsuit of sanctification
Pick up the shovel of salvation
And the ice-pick of hope
And the salt of happiness

For IN CHRIST ARE YOU GIVEN STRENGTH TO START!

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Allan Hill

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